What do Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Asquith, Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling have in common? They are just a few of the prominent fathers of their era to have had their sons killed in the First World War. This was not uncommon. If one visits the Union League or University Clubs here in New York, just to name one city, one see the names of the war dead from some of society’s most prominent families. Rudyard Kipling’s son was killed at the Battle of Loos one hundred years ago today. John Kipling, known as Jack in the family to differentiate him from his grandfather and namesake, was an eighteen-year-old second lieutenant in the Irish Guards fighting. It was the young lieutenant’s first engagement.
Roosevelt and Kipling knew each other quite well and there are parallels and differences in the deaths of their sons in France. Jack and Quentin were both born in 1897, and each was the baby in his family. Like Quentin, Jack was a witty and inquisitive young man who invariably saw the glass as half full. Though they both died young and tragically there was a crucial difference between their deaths: when Quentin was shot down in 1918 the Germans gave him a full burial; Jack’s remains were not found, which caused his father no end of anguish. Rudyard Kipling did all he could to find his son’s remains–indeed he did not give up hope that Jack was still alive until after the Great War’s end–but it was all to no avail. He went to his own grave in 1936 never knowing for certain what happened to his youngest child.
In the early 1990s officials at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission announced that they were now certain Jack was interred in the St Mary’s field hospital cemetery in Loos. That seemed to end the mystery until, in the early 2000s, two scholars released their own research that brought the War Graves Commission’s findings into question. The truth is that we will probably never know for certain. Stalin’s cliché about one death being a tragedy while one million a statistic is as true as it is cynical. Kipling himself channeled his grief into his writing. Later that very year he “My Boy Jack.” The first stanza reads:
“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
(image/Rudyard Kipling Papers, University of Sussex Library)